Tuesday 31 December 2019

Different but not frightening

In the late afternoon on the day after the 1983 General Election my then girlfriend and I spoke at great length on the (landline) telephone while I was still hungover, sleep deprived and utterly, utterly miserable. An hour or so later she turned up at my door and suggested I needed to "get out the house".

We drove up the Gleniffer Braes and went for a walk.  The view of Paisley was as magnificent as always but it did little lighten my mood. At one point the path reached an escarpment with a sharp drop and Christine cautioned, not entirely in jest, that I was not to think about jumping.

The thing was that nothing about what had happened was other than as expected but it didn't make it any easier to bear.

You see elections are important. I'd done pretty much all the marching and rallying and meeting and conferencing on offer over the previous four years to 1983.  It was, to be honest, hugely enjoyable. "Everybody" you met hated the Tories. "Everybody" predicted utter catastrophe for the NHS, the Trade Unions, Local Government, poor people in general: everything the Labour Party cared about, if the Tories were returned to power. With, at the time, the additional frisson that there was every prospect of a nuclear war.

Yet we all just stood and watched it happen. The polls said Foot couldn't win but we, at best, believed this could be turned round in the campaign or, at worst, simply disbelieved the polls as bad for (our) morale.

During the day of 12th December I was struck by the enthusiasm of the very many young people shown on twitter engaged in "getting out" the Labour vote in appalling weather. Many, I have no doubt, enthusiastic Corbynistas. It is what they choose to learn from their own experience which will now determine what happens next. For I was so reminded of my younger self.

If they are content to spend another four or five years having a good time marching, rallying, meeting and conferencing,  knowing that it will almost certainly come with a massive hangover at the end of it, then Corbynism will continue in form if not in name. With the same, or potentially an even worse, ending in 2024 or 25. All of the 57 varieties of Leninism Corbyn has let (back) in will be quite happy with that, as they do not truly believe in a parliamentary route to socialism anyway. So will be the anti-Semites, for continuity Corbynism means continuity membership. So will the social media panhandlers and the Unite faction around Corbyn's inner circle, who will presumably keep their well paid jobs and disproportionate influence, as indifferent to the wreck of a once great Party as they have been already to the wreck of a once great trade union. 

But they are not enough without the (genuinely) idealistic.

The key lies with these new, mainly young, activists. Some I suspect will drift away, daunted by any prospect of turning things round. But others will stay. And hopefully they will not want to repeat the experience of "that" exit poll. Getting to them will be the key to any more mainstream candidate getting the Party back.

But we can't lose sight of the other errors of Corbynism that could as easily have been made by a more centrist leadership. The Party's image has become ridiculously Londoncentric. It is no accident that this is the one part of the Country where we actually gained a seat. But you can't win an election in London alone. As has just been demonstrated, Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry might have come from humble stock but they are not (today) humble stock. At least in public perception.

I'm not myself persuaded that it "has" to be a woman but I'm certainly of the view that it "has" to be someone with a direct appeal outside the M25. And, Dan Jarvis aside, that leaves the only credible candidates being women.

But it also has to be someone, to use a reference which is hopefully not too anachronistic, who has "The X Factor".

One of the lessons of the election is that while there should be no doubt (NO DOUBT!!!!) who now is the Party of Government, there remains little doubt who is the most likely alternative. Both the Libs and the Tigs crashed and burned. It might yet be the case that the next non Tory Government is not a Labour Government but even if Labour takes the most disastrous of turns in the next three months that is not, I suspect, something that would become apparent until (at least) after the next general election. Yes, on  the one hand, the task, in terms of conventional "swing" is an enormous one but on the other, given the volatility of the electorate, it need not be an impossible one. Assuming it has the right message, and messenger, from day one.

And this is where things become difficult, for it is not entirely about politics. But it is entirely about who cuts through as different but not frightening. And on any view that is Jess Phillips. Just as it was once about Barack Obama.

Sunday 8 December 2019

My final election blog: A strangely British Election.

It has been a strangely British election in Scotland.

In 2015 and 2017 the UK General elections were essentially different events north and south of the border.

Here, there were "local" debates with the Scottish Party leaders up front and centre and distinctively different television coverage. That was to some extent the preference of all of the main Scottish Parties. The SNP naturally welcomed an assumption that Scotland was already semi-independent but the other three Parties also had a vested interest. Labour and the Libs assumed that their Scottish "brand" and leader had an appeal beyond the UK franchise. The Tories initially simply wanted to be seen to be "different" here but by 2017 had worked out that they possessed a Scottish leader with a  Heineken reach.

That was then however, this is now. Even in two and a half years we have a much changed media. Uniquely Scottish newspapers are in relative decline in relation to the readership of the Scottish editions of their UK based competitors and that does mean that coverage of the election has more of a UK tinge but, more importantly still, the BBC, still most peoples's source of news, has shuffled off much of its Scottish political coverage to a channel literally nobody watches. The SNP should perhaps have been more careful about what they wished for in that regard.

And then there are the specific circumstances of this contest applying to each of the four main Parties. On any view this is not so much a Tory election campaign as a Boris Johnson election campaign and the Scottish Tories have had little option but to buy into that. Johnson has been far more prominent here than either Cameron or May, interestingly directly taking on the nationalist mantra that "the Tories don't care about Scotland". That in turn has rather disguised the fact that the Scottish Tories don't actually have a permanent leader and freed up Ruth Davidson to play the role of a Scottish El Cid, taking the battle to where she wants to go without having to carry the burden of kingship.

Labour has also had to make a virtue of necessity. The absence of any identifiable Scottish leadership has left us with little alternative to Corbyn being here far more than in 2017, although he continues to feature little if at all in local campaign literature. By now the election here for Labour has become a struggle for survival, retaining as many "touching distance" second places as possible. Time will tell if this has worked.

And the Libs, led by a Scottish MP at Westminster, clearly have an interest in promoting her over giving Willie Rennie much more than a bit part this time round.

Finally, we have the SNP. Or should I say Nicola. For the rest of the Nats have been more or less invisible. Nicola seems to be on the UK telly just about every night, not as the voice of independence but as a sort of fantasy, social democratic, candidate for the position of a Remain Prime Minister. I am genuinely at a loss as to the purpose of this, for she is not seeking that position, indeed she is not seeking, at this election, any position at all. It also seems somewhat strange to effectively write off the votes of North East Scotland in pursuit of the votes of south east England.

Anyway, as I say, the net effect of this is that this has been the most British election in Scotland since at least 2010.

And that will have consequence.

It increasingly looks that there is going to be a UK Tory landslide and Tory landslides (or indeed Labour landslides, remember them?) do not pass parts of the country entirely by.

I started my election blogs by pointing out that the opening question at this election should not have been how many seats the Scottish Tories were going to lose lose but rather how many they were going to gain. How the press report matters is entirely a matter for them but I don't think that it is unfair to observe that, purely from the point of view of trade, Scottish political journalists have a vested interest in a narrative that the SNP are still going forward and that a second independence referendum remains very much on the horizon. That might explain why, even now, no-one has really been prepared to dive in to the inviting pool of seats the Tories might pick up. But there are in fact a good number.

And two things particularly favour the Tories this time.

In 2017 there was, in truth, little tactical voting. Where the Tories picked up seats the Labour vote actually went up. Where the Tories got close, and were clearly close, it also remarkably held up. But since then the nationalist cause, on the streets at least, has developed a much more distinctive  republican tone, including overt parallels to Irish republicanism. There is a certain section of the electorate who really don't buy into this but who for reasons of class or family history have been previously reluctant to ever vote Tory. My own view however is that these people are open to the Tory call to be "lent" their vote to stop a second independence referendum. Particularly as their objections to nationalism mirror their objections to Corbynism. That's not just my view however, it is pretty much every piece of Tory literature is saying. For a reason.

The second thing which favours the Tories is that they are going to win. And there is a certain logic, with that as a given, that it favours Scotland to have large numbers on the winning side. Playing the sort of role that was probably most famously played in the past  by George Younger. But, additionally, if the SNP are not going to hold the balance of power and if there is not going to be another referendum, what exactly, in a Westminster context, is their function? Moaning?

In 1979 the Scottish Tories got 31.4% of the Scottish popular vote. I think they will beat that in 2019.
31.4% brought them 31% of the seats then available (22 of 71). I think that's pretty much where we are now. So my final election prediction? Labour 3; Lib-Dems 5; Tories 18; SNP 33.

Saturday 30 November 2019

My fourth election blog: The centre has not held.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,........
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1921)

This was meant to be the election of the centre. Both of the major Parties are in the grip of their wildest extremes. Both are led by figures who are in different ways regarded, even by some of their own members, even indeed by a number of their own candidates, as unfit for the post of Prime Minister. One is absolutely in favour of abandoning that great centrist institution, the European Union, the other at best ambivalent on that matter. 

When the election was called there was a real anticipation that not only would the Liberal Democrats flourish, possibly even to the extent of coming second in the popular vote, but that they would be joined in the Commons by a number of "independent" refugees from the two big Parties who weren't, for whatever reason, willing to completely jump the dyke to actual Lib Dem membership. 

In the run up to and indeed during the campaign, the Lib Dem cause has been joined by some of the brightest and best of former Labour and Tory centrist MPs and endorsed by former grandees of both big Parties. What possible better circumstance could they have?

Yet it simply has not happened. No-one now suggests they will get anything like the 23% of the popular vote and 57 seats won by Nick Clegg in 2010, when the electorate was otherwise faced with a choice between the far more mainstream Prime Ministerial candidates of Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Furthermore, the chances of more than one or two of the miscellaneous independents getting elected is vanishingly small. My money would be on none at all. 

The reasons for this are many and complex. 

The starting point is that this is a quasi-presidential system and while objection can be raised to both Johnson and Corbyn in that role, objection can also be raised to Jo Swinson. I hesitated before writing this for fear of be accused of ageism or, worse, mysoginy, but you cannot avoid the conclusion that this election has came to soon for her. She is is too young, too inexperienced for you to able to close your eyes and imagine her in 10 Downing Street. If I might make a comparison with another political figure, Nicola Sturgeon, that was precisely the calculation that the SNP made when rejecting the idea of Nicola Sturgeon as their leader in 2004. Since then however Ms Sturgeon has been (at least) deputy leader of the SNP for fifteen years. She has had a leading role in in, now, eight Scottish or UK Elections, never mind two referendums. It is that which has honed her into the consummate politician which even her worst enemies would concede she now is.

Jo Swinson has had no such baptism, let alone confirmation. Until six months ago she was a fairly unknown figure and she simply has not had time to grow into a leadership role. It is that, rather than more fundamental personal failings, which has hampered her in this campaign.

But there have been other mistakes by the Lib Dems, most fundamentally on their positioning on Brexit. Whether we like it or not, in June 2016 the British people voted in a referendum to leave the EU. You can't just ignore that. But the Libs essentially proposed/propose to do just that. This was then compounded by suggesting that their initial ambition was to win the election outright. That avoided them having to express a preference between Johnson and Corbyn but left the Party of PR suggesting that c.40% in a General Election would overrule 52% in a referendum. This might have a certain logic if you believe any Brexit is disastrous, so, as the Party of Government, you could never countenance such a happening. It also avoids the absurdity of the Labour position of negotiating a different deal but then possibly campaigning against it in a referendum but it just doesn't/didn't seem fair and raised genuine fears of de-legitimising the democratic process.

In any event, the idea that the Libs could "win" the election, even with miscellaneous independent allies was always absurd. After three weeks of the campaign they have conceded that themselves and are back to arguing for a major role in a hung Parliament. But that then washes them back onto the perilous rocks of choosing between Corbyn and Johnson and in particular the problem that one key target voting group, Tory remainers, are horrified with the idea that Corbyn might gain power on any basis, while a second key group, Labour voters who don't like Corbyn, are equally fearful of Johnson still in number ten. If that wasn't enough, a third key group, those who just want to move on from Brexit, are far from convinced they want another hung Parliament at all.

Not even with the benefit of hindsight, this illustrates the strategic error of the centrist opposition in the last Parliament nailing their colours to the always illusory quest of a second vote rather than offering to work with Mrs May for the softest of Brexits. Now they would argue that offer would not have been accepted but since it was never made we will never know what would have happened if it had.  What we do know is that in consequence Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd have been replaced each by a much more right wing successor who are now on the verge of a Tory landslide.

And that leads me to my final reason for failure, Liberal Democrat sectarianism. They have quite expressly spurned the opportunity to assist their own would be allies. Excepting their rather strange deal with the Greens and Plaid in sixty or so seats, few of these where any of these three Parties have any chance, they have resolved to stand against almost all the centrist independents, withdrawing only against the apparently randomnly chosen Sir Dominic Grieve. They also continue to oppose those surviving centrist candidates of the two big Parties even where that might only assist their hard Brexiteer or mad Corbynista opponent. 

I'm going to write further about this after the election but hopefully the Liberal Democrats will finally realise themselves that their most fundamental error of this election is that if the centre is to prosper, it requires the Liberal Democrats (the mistake the Tiggers made in not realising) but it can't comprise the Liberal Democrats alone.

Sunday 24 November 2019

My Third Election blog. For Labour, Winter is coming

It says everything that today's Panelbase poll giving Scottish Labour a mere 20% was nonetheless greeted with some sense of relief in my Party's ranks. The week before last there were three Council by-elections in Scotland: two in Fife and one in Inverness. The Labour vote fell by 4.3%,  6.9% and, in the only seat where we had much of a vote share to start with, a spectacular 13.%. In the last case, Dunfermline Central, we also managed to go from second place to fourth in one fell swoop.

It is looking increasingly likely Labour will lose every seat we currently hold north of the border excepting the wholly unrepresentative example of the "Labour and Unionist" candidate Ian Murray in Edinburgh South.

This would remain a tragic outcome to me, semi detached though I am from Corbyn's Labour. Not least as several outstanding public representatives will be swept away in the process, never mind that many others who would make outstanding public representatives will never get that opportunity.

It would be fair to say however that Corbyn and his allies wrote off Scotland from the start. Their pivot to supporting or at least allowing a second independence referendum had nothing to do with attracting Labour votes in Scotland but everything to do with attracting SNP votes in a hoped for hung Parliament in the post election period.The Scottish Labour Party was not even as much as consulted in the process and I doubt if this policy shift will feature on a single Labour leaflet north (or indeed south) of the Border.

But it will all, anyway, be in vain, except for leaving us with an immense hangover for the 2021 Holyrood election, as it seems increasingly clear from the UK polls that on 12th December, we are heading for at least a Tory majority and in all probability a Tory landslide.

There will then be an existential choice for the Labour Party. The manifesto consists of little more than a whole list of retail policies aimed, not, in my opinion, even very cleverly, at specific target groups of voters, together with a gigantic wish list of public sector and want to be public sector Trade Union demands. Today's £58Bn overnight "promise" to women in their sixties without even the pretence of knowing how it would be funded is but the most ludicrous example of the former to date, while the straightforward manifesto offer of an immediate pay increase to a select group of workers, whose unions are bankrolling Labour's campaign, borders on the farcical. And don't even get me started on "sectoral collective bargaining".

But there is no doubt the manifesto was greeted with something approaching hysteria in Corbynista circles. It is in truth worthless. Mere words on a piece of paper much of which the leadership circle know themselves has no prospect of being implemented, given that the limit of their electoral ambition is to be the largest Party in a hung Parliament. Anybody think the SNP would ever sign up for the entire country's broadband being within the monopoly hands of the British Government? Or the Libs for pretty much any of this, even if Corbyn himself was sacrificed in pursuit of their support? No, me neither.

But the question is what happens next. For some, a "brilliant" manifesto every five years and four years and ten months of meetings, rallies and protests in between will be an end in itself. "Hobby politics" as someone once described it. The cult of Jeremy will become the cult of Rebecca, or whoever, but otherwise things pretty much carry on as before. Hopefully., at least, with a bit less anti-Semitism.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if that happens. The same Trade Unions most signed up for Corbyn have been content with that pattern of events for their own internal affairs. Declining memberships and declining real world influence or even relevance but still brilliant banners to wave on the occasional, not very well attended, demonstration.

If it does, Labour's only continued function will be to entrench the Tories in permanent power in a way that the Italy's PCI did for nearly fifty years post war for the Italian Christian Democrats. The PCI had even better banners, and bigger, more colourful marches, in the process. They could also call on much better film directors than Ken Loach to document their struggle. A lot of good it did them. Real change only came when the DC destroyed themselves with the corruption absolute power always brings in the end. Even then, continued factionalism between the left and centre simply paved the way for Berlusconi and now, one fears, Salvini.

Well done Jeremy. If you can secure the succession for an acolyte, you will leave a lasting legacy. Where that leaves the rest of us will be the subject of my next blog. I suspect it won't be happy reading either.

Monday 11 November 2019

My second election blog: What worries the Nats.

On the face of it the first Scotland wide poll published since the election was called (although its fieldwork pre-dated that) was good news for the SNP. 42% and almost twice the votes of their nearest rivals (The Tories).

But, in truth they have four quite separate worries.

The first is that they are aware of a tendency, that I have already alluded to in my previous blog, for Westminster Scottish polling to overstate their support. They themselves realise that constant references to Westminster as a "foreign" parliament, necessary for their wider project, is hardly a strong point when arguing that their supporters must nonetheless turn out to vote in its elections. The big thing about 2017 was not that the opposition Parties gained lots of votes but rather than the SNP lost them. I wouldn't bet on them having got them back.

The second is that they fear being caught in a pincer. They worry on the one hand about leeching votes to the Lib Dems, who are the "quiet life" Party in Scotland promising "no more referendums" but also promising remain. This will lose them no seats directly to the Libs, except obviously Fife NE, but it certainly, under first past the post, sees them losing seats to others. They also worry however about how their own, now more, far more, than 2017, express commitment to Remain will play with the forgotten 38% of Scottish politics. Those who voted leave in 2016, a good one third of whom at least, by most calculation, had voted Yes in 2014. Brexit wasn't really an issue in Scotland in 2017. It will be this time.

Thirdly, they worry about their closeness to the idea of making Jeremy Corbyn Prime Minister. He is not, by any means, the sole reason for Scottish Labour's current unpopularity. He is, nonetheless, exceptionally unpopular. Almost as much in Scotland as in England.  And yet given the way the Nats have positioned themselves, the  only way now to ensure he never enters Downing Street is to vote for the Tories or the Lib Dems. I bet, given the chance, Nicola would turn back time to adopt the Jo Swinson position of possible support for a Labour Government but never for one led by Corbyn. Then again, as she juggles the nationalist balls in the air, that might risk losing populist votes elsewhere.

And finally, they worry about the weather. Not really extreme weather that would affect all parties equally but just dreich horrible weather. The SNP are blessed, if that's the right word, by some front line supporters who would, to their credit I suppose, walk five miles barefoot through a snowdrift to cast their votes for "Freedum!" But their leadership are acutely aware that they also have more or less a monopoly of those who, on the day, depending on the day, look out the window and might not feel bothered to vote at all. Roll on the sleet.

Now, there remain lots of things to encourage the Nats. Nobody suggests they won't remain Scotland's largest party on 13th December. They have however set the bar so high for themselves, and the stakes are so high for them, that I suspect Nicola would bite your arm off now if offered the deal of a single net gain on 13th December. For she gets what a single net loss would mean.

But I finish with a telling example. In 2017, I highlighted what I described as "secret seats", meaning seats that no-one thought in play but I believed might change hands. A lot of them then did. So here's my 2019 secret seat. Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey. SNP vote 2015, 50.1%. SNP vote 2017, 39.9%. But that's not the really telling thing. Tory vote 2015, 5.9%. Tory vote 2017, (an astonishing) 30.5%. Apply what I say above and I think we can at least speculate it will soon be somebody else joining the Caledonian Sleeper.

Next blog, excusing events, I will turn my attention to the Labour Party. North and South.

Sunday 3 November 2019

My first election blog.

I say with due modesty that, back in 2017, I wrote a series of blogs, in the last of which I pretty much predicted the result of the 2017 General Election in Scotland. Feel free to look them up. They were written against the received wisdom of the day, even among those equally ill disposed to Scottish Nationalism as am I. Which received wisdom was, like it or lump it, that the Nats would pretty much stand still on their annus miraculis of 2015, when they had taken more or less every seat in Scotland.

In 2017, once the people had spoken however,  the proof was in the eating. And received opinion suddenly found itself hungry. 21 seats hungry.

My starting point tonight is pretty much the same. Once again that the "received opinion" of the day, that the Nats will make significant gains, is simply wrong. They will probably stand more or less still but the opening question about the "Scottish" election should not be about how many seats the Scottish Tories will lose but rather about how many they will gain.

Let us start by looking at the polls,

Here is every opinion poll on Westminster voting since 2017. Since I'm assuming an informed readership I'm not bothering with a graphic, just a link, https://www.electoralcalculus.co.uk/polls_scot.html

Now, what does that tell you? Well, first of all, that its a bit odd that in pretty much every poll the SNP percentage exceeds anything they actually got when real people actually voted. Which might suggest sampling error. But also that, even excluding this possibility, that the "nationalist" vote bumps along somewhat short of the infamous 45%. Let along the 49% they got in 2015.

Yes (or whatever) you say, but the Tories are still in the low twenties.As indeed they are. Except that a fair bit of the overall percentage is, in the later polls, given to the Brexit Party. Who in most places won't actually be standing, or at least seriously competing. And where do these voters go in that circumstance? Add, shall we say, 4 points from the Brexit Party to the Tory column and then run the figures again through the electoral calculus own calculating tool, even giving the Nats their supposed 38.9% and the Tories lose precisely four seats. Logically, they would be Ayr, Ochil, Gordon and Stirling.

But in all of them there are particular circumstances in that the Tories  came from third place in each in 2017, leaving a significant "unionist" vote in the hands of other Parties , some of such voters we can assume were confused about where to place any anti nationalist tactical vote. I'll be very surprised indeed if the Tories lose Gordon, or Ayr or Ochil this time round. But almost as much to the point, most of the other Scottish Tory seats are just about as safe as any seat is in a four Party system. Solid majorities of around 5,000. or above.

Whereas, and here is where things get really interesting, the second most marginal Scottish Tory seat (Gordon) has a majority of 2,607. No fewer than eighteen SNP seats have smaller majorities.And 22 of under 3,000.  Most over Labour (of which more later) but five: North Perth, Lanark, Central Ayrshire, Edinburgh South West and Argyll. over the Tories. I see no reason the Tories won't take four of these. The exception is Edinburgh South West, which is very posh but also very "remainy" and where the incumbent, Joanna Cherry, is, like her or not, a very prominent "remainy" MP.

So, even giving the Nats Stirling the other way, by no means a given, the Tories would be up a net three. Even assuming a UK wide landslide didn't deliver them the three way marginals of Edinburgh North or (God forbid) East Lothian.

Now, before going on to look at the prospects for my own Party, a brief word about the Libs. They are up in both Scottish and UK polls but, except for the four seats they hold and NE Fife, anywhere else their starting point is nowhere. In only two seats beyond these five are they even third. There has been talk of the Tories not really trying in Ross, Cromarty and Skye (where they are second) in the hope of unseating Ian Blackford but, majority 5K plus, I can't see it, much as I would like to. The Libs however will regain NE Fife (SNP Majority 2) at a canter. They might well have have done so already in 2017 but for a returning officer wanting to go to his bed.

And so to Labour, second in 16 of these 22 seats where the SNP Majority is less than 3,000.

Well, the most likely thing is that we'll gain none of them. And, what's more, lose 6 of our existing 7. Possibly East Lothian to the Tories but otherwise all "back" to the SNP.

But, hope springs eternal. Two things might happen. Corbyn might once again enjoy a campaign "surge". In 2017, had we pulled resources from the quixotic attempt to regain Eastwood, we would almost certainly have won half a dozen seats in "proper" greater Glasgow and Lanarkshire. Either Kez was completely campaign deaf or, "once a volunteer", knew exactly what she was doing in that exercise. More sympathetic to "the project" leadership this time at least won't make that "mistake". Alternatively, once it is clear there is no danger of Corbyn actually winning, we might pick up some tactical anti Nat votes in the latter stages of the campaign. Although the polling and by-election results have been terrible, there remains a defiant core vote on which to o be built . That tactical add on simply didn't happen in 2017. Where Labour won, or lost narrowly, the Tory vote actually went up. As indeed did the Labour vote in the seats where the Tories defeated the SNP. If however a "unionist together" phenomena happens, where the Greens choose to stand might prove critical.

Anyway, we'll see.

For the moment my prediction is this. SNP 34 (-1) Tories 17 (+4) Libs 5 (+1) Labour 3 (-4).

But I reserve the right to revisit that as the campaign develops

Saturday 12 October 2019


I've been to busy to do much blogging but to be honest I've also been at a loss as to what to blog about.

I know this is the weekend of the SNP Conference, so there will be once again much puffery about another Independence referendum over the next few days. But it has been clear for months, if not in truth forever, that whether there will be second such vote will depend on the outcome of the next Holyrood election. Which the Nationalists propose to hold in 2021.

And that to be honest suits the SNP. For their wiser heads know that virtually all polling indicates that, currently, they would lose such a contest. That's why they have quietly, last month, introduced the Scottish Elections (Reform) Bill for the precise purpose of postponing for a year the next Scottish General Election. Which, without this legislation, would otherwise be in May 2020.

If Nicola was serious about an early referendum what better way to advance her cause than by seeking and securing an express mandate for it in just over six months? Instead she is running away. The only strategic outcome the SNP leadership seek from their Aberdeen Conference is, for internal Party management reasons, to give the impression they are serious about an early contest when in reality they are quite the opposite.

I'll only say three other things in passing.

The first is to observe that, given it is an open secret that the date of his next court appearance will be 18th November, the Alex Salmond Indictment is likely to be served next week. It would be quite entertaining if that happened during the Conference.

The second is that by the next SNP Conference in the Spring there is every likelihood Salmond's trial will be over. So the possibility that this will be Nicola's last conference as Party leader seems strangely overlooked by the press.

And the third.......I'll come back to the third. For it is connected to my other theme today, inevitably, Brexit.

Predicting the next week is not easy because of the opacity of what is happening in the EU/UK negotiations but there seems at least a possibility that Boris will get a deal. For the purpose of what I say below, I will assume that to be the case.

Boris with a deal is a very different creature from Mrs May with a deal. Those Tory MP's who believe that "No deal" is actually the best outcome are truly small in number. The vast bulk of the "hold outers" on the May deal did so in the belief that someone else could get a better deal. Their problem is that this someone else was......Boris. So that argument goes away. And indeed some of them might actually persuade themselves that Boris's deal is better, although in truth it is at best only likely to be (slightly) different. The killer argument however for more or less all the Tories to get behind a deal is twofold. The alternative to Boris's deal is not no deal. It is extension. And extension leads not to a second referendum (there is still no Commons majority for that) but certainly to a General Election as a result of which a second referendum might become inevitable.

And also, if you think things through, the Tory manifesto at that election would be for the Boris deal, so those still opposed could hardly stand as Tory candidates. Indeed they might not be given any choice in that matter.

So everything says the Tories get behind a deal and while they might lose the DUP in the process they get back almost all the rebels and, it would appear, (this time) peel off sufficient Labour MPs to get the deal through the Commons.

So then what?

Well, obviously an election.

Although when might be a different matter. A done deal requires a sitting Commons to pass the necessary supporting legislation. So dissolution before 31st October seems unlikely. Dissolution after 31st October however takes the date of the Election into December. Never mind how the public might react to Christmas being "spoiled", the prospect of the weather intervening becomes a real prospect, even more so in January and February. Certainly there was a February election in 1974 but it was on the very last day of the month. So my money would be on March. That would also give the Tories the opportunity to promote the more popular of their policies, possibly even setting legislative bear traps for the opposition in the process.

But the other question is what happens to the opposition. Labour will probably stick with Corbyn and resign itself to disastrous defeat. One thing however is certain. If Corbynism, in truth essentially the politics of perpetual opposition, survives the man himself as the dominant strand of internal Labour opinion, then, if there hasn't been a realignment on the centre left before the election, there will most certainly be one afterwards. Even assuming Labour, initially, remains the principal opposition Party in the Commons. Not perhaps a big if but certainly a small if.

But here I come back to where I started, Scottish politics.

The assumption has been that the 2021 Holyrood election will at the very least deliver an SNP plurality and thus a continued Nationalist Government. A fair assumption. For while the nationalists conduct of the devolved administration has been pretty mediocre, as outlined most recently even by their Common Weal allies, Scottish Labour is currently in an unelectable condition, while the Tories remain toxic in urban west central Scotland. Where most people actually live. And the two together as an alternative administration is inconceivable.

My own suspicion is that the more managerial Nats wouldn't mind a 2021 result that denied them the votes for a second referendum (which they fear they would lose), so long as it delivered them the votes to remain in office. They are for playing the long, "inevitability", game.

But realignment would be realignment. A specifically anti populist, fact based, politics of the centre left. The politics of John Smith and Donald Dewar.  To actually get things done. That's my third point. And where better to put that to an early test than in Scotland in 2021?

Saturday 27 July 2019

Far too long. Far too detailed

I know many people treat Twitter as an echo chamber gravitating towards following others who share their own views and then spending much of their time agreeing with each other. That has never been my objective on the platform. I follow many of quite different views and am happy on occasion to respectfully agree to disagree.

One of those with whom I most often disagree is Henry Hill, @HCH-Hill, the assistant director of the Tory Website, Conservative Home.

It would be fair to say that our politics could hardly be further apart for Henry isn't just a Tory, he is an ardent Brexiteer and, when it comes to Scottish politics, makes no secret of his belief that the Holyrood Parliament should be abolished altogether!

But he is always polite if combative in our exchanges and we rub along friendedly enough. And very occasionally find ourselves in agreement. No more so than when we found ourselves agreeing that you can't explain British politics since the 2017 General Election without understanding how the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 has completely changed the game.

Prior to 2011, peacetime UK Parliaments had a maximum term of five years. But the governing Prime Minister had the right to seek an earlier dissolution from the Queen which was invariably acceded to, theoretically at least unless there was any prospect of another person being able to command a Commons Majority.

Excepting the special circumstances of October 1974, when Labour, although the largest Party the previous February had no majority or route to a majority, and 1979 when the Government "fell", a broad pattern had emerged whereby a Government sensing victory would go to the Country after four years while one fearing defeat held out the full five. As examples of the former, the Tories in 1983 and 1987, New Labour in 2001 and 2005 and of the latter, the Tories in 1997 and Labour in 2010. Of course things didn't always go to as expected, as discovered by Wilson in 1970 and Heath in February 1974. Or indeed more fortuitously as John Major, having put things off to the very last minute in 1992, found himself to his own pleasant surprise (at least initially) re-elected.

Partly because of these latter arbitrary events, most partisans of the two big Parties were happy enough about this but the Liberals and then Liberal Democrats never were, as they felt controlling the date of the next election gave the Prime Minister's Party an unfair advantage. And when they went into coalition in 2010 they had an additional worry. That David Cameron could call a subsequent election at a time of maximum advantage to the Tories and (potentially) maximum disadvantage to them.

So, as part of the coalition agreement, they insisted that Parliament should sit for a fixed term, eventually agreed at five years, although, to be fair to the Libs, their own initial preference had been for four.

By virtue of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011 this then became the law of the land. Crucially, it still is.

There are now only two ways a Parliament can serve a shorter term. The first is where Parliament itself votes for an early election by a two thirds majority and the second is where the Governing administration is defeated in a vote of confidence in the Commons. Crucially, the right of the serving Prime Minister to go directly to the Monarch to seek an early dissolution by "Royal perogative" has been abolished.

So let's look at the two "worked examples" since 2011.

The first is easy. The 2010 Parliament sat for five years and there then was an election as envisaged which the Tories won and not just Labour but the Liberals also lost.

I assume you already know the disastrous consequence of that although that is not an interpretation Henry would share.

However, come 2017, the Tories believed they would benefit from another, early contest. This was a belief shared across the Parties but the principal opposition Parties could hardly concede that, so, when the Tories proposed going down the two thirds majority route, they could hardly demur. As indeed they didn't. Indeed in normal political times, no opposition Party ever could.

I assume you also know the outcome of this Theresa May masterstroke.

But it is in the aftermath of the 2017 election that the impact of the Fixed Term Parliament Act really strikes home.

As you know, after the 2017 election, Mrs May had a (just) functioning majority for day to day Government thanks to her alliance with the DUP. She had however nothing like a majority for her stated Brexit policy of an orderly exit, particularly after the details of her proposed deal with the EU became known.

But, as she tried to get that deal through the commons she was denied a vital weapon, Prior to 2011, it was open to Prime Ministers, assuming they had cabinet support, to declare any vote a vote of confidence. Members sitting in the name of the governing Party had to support it in the knowledge that, if they didn't, there would be an election. An election where they could hardly expect to be allowed to stand again on the governing Party's ticket. For they, expressly, had no confidence in that Government. But Mrs May didn't have that club in her bag. A vote of no confidence under the 2011 Act must be in particular terms and stand alone from any other issue. So the Tory rebels could happily vote against Mrs May's deal and then, nonetheless, keep her, and more significantly her Party, in power by supporting her in any no confidence vote. As was precisely what happened when Labour laid a vote of no confidence after her defeat on the second "meaningful vote".

Which brings us up to today. And Prime Minister Johnson.

And here is where another piece of legislation comes into play. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. I know this is boring but it is important. Section 20(1) of that Act defines "Exit Day" as 31st October 2019. That date can be amended by virtue of s.20(4) of the same legislation (as it has been twice already) but it can only be amended by a "Minister of the Crown". And, even if an election is called, then "Minister(s) of the Crown" would remain in post unless until removed at the request of the current Prime Minister, who remains in turn in office until he resigns or (less likely) is removed from office by HMQ at the behest of an alternative candidate who can, as he cannot, command a Commons majority. I appreciate this all seems arcane but it is, believe me, really important.

For, assuming we are talking about the here and now,  Boris Johnson is now Prime Minister until he is somehow replaced. An election occurring (I'll come back to this), he is still Prime Minister. Even an election resulting in no clear victor, he remains Prime Minister unless he resigns (cf. G. Brown for a few days post the 2010 election). And during all this time, the Ministers of the Crown remain Ministers of the Crown at his recommendation and none of them is ever going to invoke s.20(4) above. So, in summary, if Boris is still Prime Minister on 31st October we are leaving, with or without a deal. Even if he had a damascene conversion to remain, without changing the law, we are leaving with or without a deal.

Now, one of my other twitter pals is Kevin Hague @kevverage. He and I are much politically closer than Henry and I.  But he does draw some good natured criticism from our side of the constitutional divide for his blind faith in the value of graphs and diagrams. I'm more of a words man but the occasional diagram has its place. So here it is


Alright, basically you can't read it. I get that. So let me tell you what it says. It applies the statutory provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. On the assumption that a vote of no confidence is laid and passed successfully on 3rd September, the first day Parliament returns from recess, the earliest date (by law) on which a General Election could take place is Friday 25th October.

Now, even assuming that happened. Even assuming the election resulted in a landslide victory for the Liberal Democrats, granting them an absolute majority, the timetable for forming an administration, reconvening Parliament and engaging s.20(4) is so tight as to be practically impossible.

In summary, Boris has already run out the straightforward vote of no confidence route to stop a hard Brexit.

But what if he wants to call an election using the two thirds majority route under the 2011 Act, as Mrs May did in 2017? Well, apart from the man himself ruling that out, for the opposition to play ball would be a mug's game. Sure, if he opted for that on 3rd September, the theoretical Lib Dem landslide might just have enough time. But the Lib Dems aren't going to win a landslide and if he's not now proposing to do it all, he's certainly not going to do it on 3rd September. Within a week even the likes of Richard Burgon would work out that "A socialist Labour Government" would only arrive in office already out of the EU. And having conspired at that end, be even more unlikely to ever be arrived at all. So Parliament needs to continue to sit, which an immediate election specifically rules out.

So checkmate to Boris?

In summary, if he is Prime Minister on the date of any Autumn election before or after 31st October, then yes. We are out without a deal even if he loses that election. That is the import of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Even if we have by then a Government which, given time would repeal it in its entirety. That's the way legislative democracies work.

But there is one way out and it comes back to the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

Section 2 essentially provides that there will be an election called within 14 days if Parliament declares it has no confidence in the Government unless within that 14 day period Parliament declares itself to have confidence in a (by implication alternative) Government.

So suppose we vote down Boris but then declare confidence in somebody else? That somebody would have to be in the Commons, have no interest in a (future) long term occupation of the office of Prime Minister yet be patently capable of discharging the role of PM short term. They would almost certainly have to be a Tory and yet not intend to continue in elected office. They would have no interest in appointing an alternative cabinet let alone a host of junior ministers, Their Government would last no longer than a week with one simple task, to invoke section 20(4) of the Withdrawal Act to declare the "Exit Date" to be some time next year. They wouldn't even have to appoint a full administration to do that. Or even a single Minister of the Crown.  For which Minister is better than the Prime Minister? And then, once that was done, they'd declare, as they had in advance of office that they'd happily go down the two thirds majority route for an early election. In which they wouldn't stand and in the aftermath of which they would contentedly stand aside. Their obligation to the Nation done. There is one man who, by now, you have hopefully worked out could fill this role. The Rt. Hon Kenneth Clarke Q.C. M.P.

Now, I'm reasonably sure the Libs and odds and sods remainers would be up for this. Even, for a single vote of confidence, the SNP. But it needs the Labour front bench. About that I'm not so sure. But we'll deal with that if we have to.

Postscript. Since I wrote this a number of others have reached the same conclusion as I do. In the process a number of technical issues have arisen on which it would be appropriate to comment.

The first is what happens to the government and Prime Minister immediately if they lose a vote of confidence? My own view is in practical terms, nothing. The Prime Minister does not have to resign and in my opinion would be daft to do so. The country needs to have a Prime Minister and, if Johnson resigned, the Queen would of necessity have to appoint someone else, even if she knew they did not have a Commons majority. Even if Johnson offered to resign, my inclination is that the Queen would ask him to stay on in a caretaker capacity, a request  he could could hardly refuse.

The second is however how a temporary government could come into being, the suggestion that this would draw the Queen into political controversy? I don't agree with this. It wouldn't be for the Queen to pick some random and invite him or her to "have a go". The approach would have to be the other way, with someone who already had the numbers going to the palace with number and verse on that and then inviting Johnson's dismissal and their own appointment. If necessary, the Commons could hold an indicative vote to show that these numbers exist.

It's important however to note that the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires confidence to be expressed within fourteen days in an actual alternative Government and not simply a hypothetical alternative one. So the sequence requires the Temporary PM to have been appointed before the Commons holds that vote.

Thirdly, there is a suggestion this is all a dead duck as the Labour Front Bench won't play ball.
Corbyn's functionaries are certainly saying that publicly. But if any vote of confidence is delayed even by a few days when Parliament returns, any General Election would have to (by law) take place after a hard Brexit. Nobody gets that better than Dominic Cummings.  If Labour refused to support a temporary halt to that Brexit eventuality it would be expressly clear that this had been what they had done. The electoral consequences of that for (what remains, just) my Party would be cataclysmic. We could easily be the third Party in any such contest.

So it is, in my opinion, still all game to play for.

Sunday 21 July 2019

Enough (Part 1)

Almost thirty years ago I first visited a restaurant, Antica Osteria L'Agania, in Arezzo.

I have written before on this blog as to how it was my favourite restaurant in the whole world, and it was.

It had the look of a typical Italian Trattoria. Dark wood half panelling on the walls, with emulsioned walls above decorated with photographs of famous visitors or testimonials from famously satisfied customers. Together with sepia portraits of past padroni. 

Rickety chairs and tables, the latter covered with red chequered tablecloths with cutlery and napery already in place. You couldn't book and had to turn upon a first come first served basis but the treat ahead justified an early arrival or a long wait for a table.

The whole establishment was presided over by a formidable signora who, even when I first visited, was already of a certain age. She would take your order from a a menu that, despite having a virtual infinity of combinations, consisted of a much photocopied single sheet of A4, with dishes added or deleted according to the season. Antipasto, that was all. Della Casa. Which it would have been a crime to omit. Brushcette, local hams and cheeses, small torte, perhaps a miniature frittata which you suspect varied day to day according to the mood or inclination of the chef. But that was, of course, only the appetiser.

As for the pasta? Six choices, all fatta in casa, together with a similarly numerous choice of sauces with which to combine them. But the discerning diner passed on them all, for, at this stage, the real treat was zuppa. Minestrone or fagioli or...............ribollita. Ribollita to die for. More, truly, a vegetable stew than a soup, for liquid, other than soaked into  the vegetables themselves, was hard to come by. All topped with a single raw young onion, stalk and all, not to be consumed in its entirety but nibbled to refresh the pallet.

And then? The secondi. Roasts or grills or stews of almost bacchanalian choice. But with two personal favourites. Funghi, huge, "portobello" mushrooms grilled or more likely fried in a pan matching the dimension of the mushroom head itself  and...........coniglio in porchetta. Rabbit, stuffed with chopped egg, surplus rabbit meat and every herb known to mankind, all bound together by twine around fennel stalks and then coated in olive oil to keep it moist and so slow roasted you suspected they may have first placed it in the oven while you were still back in Scotland.

And contorni? Di stagione of course but I always opted for the fagioli bianchi. "Butter beans" that did actually taste of butter and were improved even further by the local olive oil.

And while all this was going on? The signora would take your order, nodding, or occasionally frowning, at your choice and, as you ate, inquire "tutto bene?" at polite intervals. If any dish went unfinished only "posto" was an acceptable response. Even about the onion.

I don't ever remember seeing a wine list. The wine was always simply Rosso or Bianco although you always got the impression that anybody opting for the latter would mark them down in the signora's estimation. I always passed that test.

For the dolce?

Frutta or Macedonia certainly, but personally I always opted for Panna Cotta. Those who know me will also know I am a creature of habit in that regard.

And with coffee and (of course) an amarro, the meal was done.

And then for the bill.

The Osteria was five minutes walk from the provincial court in Arezzo's main square. So it became quickly apparent midweek that many of your fellow diners included judges, lawyers and policemen with business there. You would therefor assume it would all be done by the book. Formal invoicing and receipts.

Only it never was. At best, a price would be written on a scrap of paper. Commonly, the signora would simply whisper it in your ear. Always far less than you expected and, equally always, ridiculously cheap. And, without saying, only to be paid in cash.

Hopefully, by now, you will understand how much I loved this place.

I also love, very much,this part of Italy. So much so that I visit it more or less every other year.

Andi and I had been there two years ago but had never got to Arezzo on that occasion.

So we returned this year for the first time in three years.

The place looked the same but even an early arrival found it strangely empty.

There was no signora and while the young man who served us seemed perfectly pleasant we were rather taken aback to be given menus not of the A4 sheet but rather laminated pre printed card. The dishes seemed the same but, ominously, also featured English translations. A wine list was also handed over from which the continued survival of a house wine had to be carefully worked out.

The antipasto consisted of, on the one hand, nothing that you couldn't have bought in Lidl in Kilsyth but even then in meagre quantity disguised by half a plateful of Panzanella.

Andi opted for a mushroom as a primo. She actually got several small mushrooms that would, to be fair, have provided a reasonable garnish to a full Scottish breakfast. I had the ribollita, which was alright but under seasoned and the whole onion bulb and stalk had been  replaced with a quarter of.....a raw onion.

Andi's roast duck was utterly tasteless while my coniglio was lacking stuffing of any sort and over roasted to the point of tasting, and having the consistency of, sawdust.

As for the fagioli bianchi? I suspect they came out of a tin.

All brought to us efficiently but indifferently, even when it was clear we had eaten so little of the main course.

But, almost more to the point, the whole establishment, where people used to queue to get in, remained no more than half full throughout. And those who were eating were almost entirely tourists, lured, one suspects, by historic tripadvisor reviews. The local lawyers and the like were clearly well gone.

The "new management", which we had only now encountered, was obviously already well known to them.

There was a proper bill and, to be fair, it wasn't expensive, although still more than in years gone by.

From the street the establishment looked the same but it wasn't the same. In truth nothing like the same. I doubt if I will ever be back.

I'm really quite upset about that.

Now, you say, why does a guy who writes mainly about politics write about this?

That's what the (Part 1) in the title is about.

Wednesday 12 June 2019

Problem shared, problem solved?

Everybody seems to me to be asking the wrong question about Labour's brexit policy.

All of the focus is on whether or not we should be backing a second referendum but, with respect, this is almost irrelevant.

A significant number of Labour MPs will not vote to hold a second referendum, whether or not that becomes Party policy, and no more than a handful of Tory MPs will ever support a second vote, so there is no prospect of that proposition securing a House of Commons majority.

I should note, in passing, that there might have been some prospect of the Kyle/Wilson plan coming to fruition whereby the government conceded a second referendum in exchange for Labour support for the Withdrawal Agreement but it is clear that, with Mrs May's departure, the always very faint prospect of this has gone.

However, it is also clear that there is no majority in the current House of Commons for leaving the EU without a deal or any appetite at all on the part of the EU to remove the backstop. So, if we discount the farcical idea of proroguing Parliament, and the equally improbable eventuality of the EU throwing us out, one of two things will eventually happen. Either Mrs May's deal will pass, making a referendum irrelevant, or there will be a general election.

And the key question to be asked is not whether Labour would back a second referendum now but rather what Labour's policy would be at that General Election. It makes simply no sense for that policy to be a "better Brexit" (whatever that is) plus a referendum on that better "Brexit" with an option to remain. Why, if the government had been elected on a promise to Brexit, better or otherwise, would they then wish to give the public the opportunity to reject the government's own policy? How would the Labour Party anticipate campaigning in such a referendum? Against the "achievement" of its own government?

The truth is that calculated ambiguity may be a tactic for opposition but it is inconceivable as the position of a government. The Labour Party manifesto will have to say whether or not we support remaining in the EU. And if, advised by the first referendum, we don't, logically it should say that we would leave. And if we say we would leave, we will also have to say what we will do if the EU refuse to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement or at least to concede in full the changes we seek (whatever they are). Would we then leave on the best terms available or would we stay in? I point out that, if it is the latter option, the EU would have no incentive to renegotiate at all.

But of course things are not even as simple as that. For, even with the grip Corbyn and his allies currently have on the organs of the Party, I find it difficult to see how they would engineer a situation where the Labour Party manifesto committed us to leaving at any price. Most candidates wouldn't stand for it and most activists wouldn't work for it. "They did in 2017!" I hear you protest but 2017 was a long time ago and, frankly, nobody thought for a moment we had any chance of getting elected in 2017. Next time will be different (possibly).

Now you might think that the solution was, on a circular argument.........another referendum! But think through the logic of that. The only conceivable options in that other referendum would be Mrs May's deal or remain. But we are on record as denouncing Mrs May's deal as a terrible deal (albeit in rather unspecified ways) and have voted against it as consistently as the hardest of ERGers. Our manifesto could (surely) not say "we will let you have a vote and encourage you to vote to stay but if you don't we will go away and implement this terrible deal."

In the end leaving or remaining is a binary choice. Either Labour is for one or the other. There is no third way.

And by the way, pretty much everything I say above applies with equal force to the Lib Dems. Except that I am in no doubt about what their manifesto will say. "Bollocks to Brexit" works. "Bollocks to Brexit (subject to a referendum)" doesn't.

And also, by the way, Labour has a (relatively) easy way out of this dilemma. They could vote for the deal currently on offer (with some cosmetic changes to the political declaration) and defuse the car crash coming. They would then have to resign themselves to this Parliament going full term but by 2022 it might all just seem a long time ago and in any event a fait accompli. For what it's worth, if you listen carefully to Rory Stewart, that's what I believe, as PM, he would anticipate explaining calmly and logically as is his wont, behind closed doors to my own Party's leadership.

For if, by the time of the next election, we haven't left the EU, that's as much of a problem for Labour as it is for the Tories.

Sunday 2 June 2019

Question Time

I have a tribal allegiance to the Scottish Labour Party. I joined it forty five years ago and have been a member all of my adult life.

But, to be honest, it's pretty much finished.

I could write lots and lots about why that is, in a kind of melancholic way, but the truth is that Jack wasn't Donald, Wendy wasn't Jack, Ian wasn't Wendy, Johann wasn't Ian, Jim wasn't Johann, Kez wasn't Jim and Richard wasn't Kez. I'm ignoring Henry but would remind you in passing that such a person was, despite his utter mediocrity, capable of being, briefly, First Minister of Scotland. Because of the dominance, and hubris, my Party once enjoyed. But this hasn't just been about leaders. They all (except Henry), on assumption of office, promised a different way of "turning things round", from just about every shade of internal Party opinion. And they all, in steadily increasing degrees of failure, have failed.

But while there may be a point about talking about the past, for those who do not lessons the errors of the past are doomed to repeat them, I want instead to talk about the future.

The SNP administrations since 2007 have been, with one exception, utter failures. Nobody thinks education, or health, or transport have been improved under their dismal stewardship, Nobody. Few, except their most rabid partisans, truly tries to maintain otherwise.

Yet they have enjoyed two huge advantages. The first is their one success. It has been to convince a very significant section of the electorate that things cannot possibly get better until we are "free of the English Yoke". Whereupon things will somehow magically improve. You and I might scratch our heads over this but that's not the point. It is an undoubted accomplishment, of sorts.

However their second advantage has been the lack of a competent opposition and, with that, the lack of a credible alternative.

Back in 2016, Ruth Davidson got that. Her platform was, by her own admission, not to make her, there and then, First Minister, but rather Leader of the Opposition. An ambition in which she succeeded.

But, even then, the Nats relaxed in the knowledge that at any future contest, even if the Tories advanced further still, they would still lack allies to threaten the recent SNP hegemony. For the Labour Party would never enter a coalition with the Tories based, alone, on a common commitment to the continuance of the UK.

And that's probably a fair calculation.

Except that the changed landscape of the Brexit Referendum in 2016 may have crept up on them as the Independence Referendum of 2014 crept up on the Scottish Labour Party.

I was going to expand on this thesis, except that I know I have an informed readership, so I will leave you through to think that through for yourselves.

And also to work out why the SNP decided to set their cybernat dogs on Jo Swinson over what was nothing more than a two minute exchange on last Thursday's Question Time. About which Swinson was, on any objective analysis, subsequently proved correct.

An emerging alternative Government of Scotland is......emerging.

The next First Minister of Scotland will clearly be Mike Russell or Derek McKay, because Nicola clearly wont survive the Salmond trial, whatever the verdict. If Henry could get the job, then why shouldn't they? But the First Minister after that?

Things can only get better.


Friday 19 April 2019

Ten Easter Paintings

I used to write about art quite a lot. It is one of my great passions. But "things happen" and I have largely given up since.

At the end of 2012, I wrote a blog, "Ten Christmas Paintings", fully intending to follow it up with a companion blog for Easter, if not in 2013, then certainly much more recently than now. But life is life and without a very long diversion to explain, that has never happened. But now, whether you wish for it or not, that blog is finally to be prevailed upon you.

The handful of you, if that in itself is not an exaggeration, who follow my art blogs, will know they follow certain rules.

They must all be of paintings I have actually seen (with one allowed exception) and they must be from ten different artists (again with one mulligan allowed). And at some point we will stop for lunch. These are the rules but the reader also doesn't take long to realise that my chosen paintings are entirely dominated by Italian Renaissance and Pre-Renaissance Art, for that is with what I am most familiar. Whatever "Pre-Renaissance" means anyway. But that is an argument for another day.

And you might find the occasional reference to contemporary politics dropped in on the way. For that's what I mainly write about. Who knows whether that will happen as I type this, for I haven't finished. Or even really started. So let's get going.

1 Lorinzetti. The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi.

 Image result for lorenzetti palm sunday

Where to start is part of the problem. All the concentration in high renaissance art is on the three days (we'll get on to that) but earlier painters saw the wider picture. There is a wonderful Duccio di Buoninsegna cycle in Siena which traces events from before Holy Week right through to the Ascension which I don't even have time for here. Here I only have time for this. I can't even remember which Lorinzetti painted this. Him or his brother. Obviously I could do a bit of googling and sort that out. But it wouldn't matter. It's very early, from the start of the 14th Century. Just to put that in context for Scottish people, around the time of Bannockburn. Like the Duccio, also Sienese. And just, I don't know why exactly, wonderful. At this point I could write another 10,000 words about Lorinzetti and his bro. Not least his (or the other one's) triptych in Arezzo within walking distance of my favourite restaurant in the whole world. But you will be relieved to learn I don't intend to do so.

2. Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

So, let's instead just jump forward. This is where things start, for the first time, to get a wee bit difficult. I get that this is a good painting. A very good painting even. By a man who was, beyond peradventure, a genius. But, I don't know, it just seems a bit.....overrated. I spent twenty  years or so wanting to see this and yet , immediately afterwards, I found myself slightly disappointed. It's all just a bit staged. Nonetheless, few paintings have so many conspiracy theories attached. Not least that the the disciple immediately to Jesus's right looks like a woman. (look it up!)

3. The taking of Christ. Goya, The Prado, Madrid.

Image result for the taking of christ

Now here, lads, you might have been expecting the Caravaggio in Dublin, it is truly grand. However I've already planned ahead to another Caravaggio and would remind you of my own rules above. So this is by Goya. No artist probably painted in such a mixture of styles but this is a fairly traditional image from a very Catholic culture painted at the end of the 18th Century. And, although it is not Caravaggio, you don't need to look very far to spot his influence. More to the point, the painting is in Madrid. I love Madrid for many reasons but principally because it has not one, not even two, but three great art galleries. This is from the Prado, probably the greatest of the three. Nowhere better in the world for Goya, or Velasquez. Or indeed for a wee row on the boating lake just behind.

4. The flagellation of Christ. Palazzo Ducale, Urbino.

Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ, c. 1455-65, oil and tempera on wood, 1' 11 1/8" x 2' 8 1/4" (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino)

"The greatest small painting in the world". It is tiny, less than two feet across. But so much going on. Analysed expertly here . Urbino is a bit out of the way, over the Mountains of the Moon from southern Tuscany. For as long as I have been going to Italy, they have been constructing a viaducts and tunnels autostrada to cut the journey time. They probably still will be long after I've gone. That's Italy for you. If ever a country needed a strong man leader to bring a bit of ordine and get these great infrastructure projects completed...........I may have taken that too far.

5. The Crucifixion, Velasquez. The Prado, Madrid.

I'm struggling here a bit to contain the narrative, so Simon the Cyrene and Saint Veronica and various other major players will have to wait for any sequel. For the subject at hand, no writer has been more spoiled for choice. Obviously however there are many, many depictions featuring miscellaneous other actors at the foot of the Cross. But, with respect to them, I think that kind of misses the point. This doesn't. A work of genius.

6. Cristo Morto. Mantegna. Pinoteca di Brera, Milan.

The dead Christ and three mourners, by Andrea Mantegna.jpg

Again, for reasons of space, any number of great Depositions have had to go. Similarly Pietas, the greatest of which anyway, to my mind at least, is not in paint but in marble, in the form of Michelangelo's masterwork in St Peter's in Rome. Instead I give you this. I'll confess, I'm not the greatest fan of Milan. It is too "modern" a city for me. And a kind of "Imperial" city, in the model of London or Vienna, without ever having had the Empire to go with it. If you left it up to me, I'd be happily be rushed in and out to see the magnificent Gothic cathedral and the Pinoteca di Brera. Where you will find this. The perspective is stunning. The wounds at centre stage and the grief of the mourners only too real. Reminding you that, for two days, they really did think it was all over. That's all. Although it is obviously not all.

7. The Resurrection. Piero della Francesca. Museo Civico, San Sepolcro.

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-5, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro)

This is my very favourite painting in the whole world, a preference I share, somewhat improbably, with none other than Tony Blair. Notwithstanding Christ's dolorous expression, it is literally, a picture of triumph. Of life over death. I remain firmly agnostic with regard to religion but, when I see the likes of this, I really wish that I wasn't.

By now however you must be starving. And if you've read any of my  previous art blogs, you'll know that I like at one point to stop for a bit of lunch.

I was last in San Sepolcro two years past, when the Resurrection was in restauro and therefor only partly visible. The disappointment of this was only compounded by the ticket office offering to sell me a discounted pensioners ticket. The restoration is however now finished and I'm therefor planning to return by the end of June this year. Looking as young as possible. On my way back, I will most likely stop for lunch in Umbertide (I am a creature of habit). There is a wee trattoria, the Locanda Appennino there that I first stumbled upon more than twenty five years past. The food is everything that you would expect but its main selling point is that you eat under a pergola beside, in Summer, the dried up river bed. The flora and fauna are all around you to the extent that you wouldn't be entirely surprised to find St. Francis himself at a nearby table.

Anyway, after an expresso and a digestivo della casa, back to the action.

8. The Supper at Emmaus. Caravaggio. The National Gallery. London

1602-3 Caravaggio,Supper at Emmaus National Gallery, London.jpg
And, finally, to the Caravaggio.

In the Gospels, appearances of the risen Christ are actually relatively rare. This particular one only features, at least as at a specific location, in St. Luke. It is the painting I have seen most recently, for it was on loan to the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland last Summer. There is lots of iconography and symbolism within it but you can google that. I'd only draw you attention to both the realism of the characters and, as always, the wonderful use of light. Caravaggio, eh?

9. Noli me Tangere. Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Giotto - Scrovegni - -37- - Resurrection (Noli me tangere).jpg

And so, from the very end of the high period of Italian art, back to the very beginning. The Scrovegni Chapel is one of the true wonders of the world situated in one of my very favourite cities in Italy. But I've also chosen this version of the Noli me Tangere for another reason. To show how the development of Italian art drew down inspiration through the generations. This is a complex picture but look at the sleeping soldiers around the tomb. And then look back to Piero's Resurrection above. The latter was painted 1463-65, while Giotto painted this 1303-1305. more than 150 years before. Yet the influence is obvious.

10. The risen Christ appears to the Apostles. 14th Century unknown artist. Notre-Dame de Paris.

Image result for risen christ in notre dame de paris

And that is more or less it.

This is the allowed exception that I referred to above. For, although I have been to Notre Dame, if I did see this then I have lost all recollection of having done so.

You don't write something like this blog without a plan, and my plan originally was to finish with the great mosaic of Christ in Majesty in the Cathedral of Monreale, near Palermo. But then this week we had the tragic fire at Notre-Dame. Where this small work may or may not have been destroyed. The extent to which all Europe, indeed most of the world, was seized by the event as it unfolded ranged far wider than those who were practising Christians but I defy anybody not to have been  moved by the film of the crowds singing the Ave Maria outside.

I don't like the phrase, Judeo-Christian for two reasons. Firstly it suggests a mutual harmony of co-existence which is hardly borne out by history. In one direction of persecution in particular. But secondly, it implicitly excludes from the conversation the third great monotheistic religion, Islam, in a way that is wholly unjustified. The Renaissance itself would have been impossible without the discovery, among Islamic scholars and in Arabic, of many major Greek texts otherwise lost in their original tongue. The preservation, in Spain, of  so many great buildings, originally built as Mosques in the reincarnation of modern Churches and, in Anatolia, of so many great Churches as latter day Mosques demonstrates the appreciation of a common cultural patrimony which exists to this day. As does so much else, not least the "Turkish" influence on as diverse recipients as Holbein, Mozart or, indeed, anyone simply desirous of a humble kebab.

I get annoyed therefor with the suggestion that this is "White Man's" culture from both the side that would claim for it an implied superiority, but equally from the "other" side that suggests that, for that very reason, in the modern age, it shouldn't be routinely taught, or learned, at all.

Easter is the greatest festival of the Christian Church. But, culturally,  it belongs to all of us as well.

Enjoy your lamb on Sunday.